Cyber Culture: BuzzFeed - an unlikely investor in the future of longform journalism?
Rhodri Marsden is the Technology Columnist for The Independent; he has also written about crumpets, Captain Beefheart, rude place names and string. He's also a musician who plays in the band Scritti Politti, and won the under-10 piano category at the 1980 Watford Music Festival by playing a piece called "Silver Trumpets" with verve and aplomb.
Wednesday 14 November 2012
There are many ways for people to register their disapproval of something you've written and posted online, from a simple thumbs-down to a sustained campaign of harassment culminating in the imposition of a restraining order. But the most withering are those replies that simply read "TLDR" – or "too long, didn't read". It's become shorthand for our supposed intolerance for writing that extends beyond bullet points, an affirmation that lengthy tracts of prose belong to a pre-internet era. But maybe this is all a fallacy.
Traditionally, online publishers have indulged the notion that we have fish-like attention spans, because their ad-funded models need feeding with briskly refreshed, cheaply produced content that keeps those hit counters ticking. But last week, the website Buzzfeed – known primarily for aggregating bite-sized content that's heavy on cat antics and cheap "lulz" – appointed former Spin editor Steve Kandell to oversee its foray into longform journalism. While a number of worthy projects such as Byliner and Atavist have, over the past couple of years, nurtured longform journalism by offering articles for a couple of dollars each, this appointment is different; it's an admission that absorbing, lengthy reads not only bring in readers, but entice advertisers too. Has the "race to the bottom" for online content turned a crucial corner?
"We're certainly seeing a correction," says Bobbie Johnson, co-founder of Matter, a longform journalism project that launched yesterday at readmatter.com. "It's clear that the amount of effort you put in [to writing an article] can be related to the value that emerges at the other end." Matter's first story, "Do Not Harm", an absorbing 8,000-word piece by Anil Ananthaswarmy about the tragic story of people who feel compelled to amputate their own limbs, is available to read online or as an e-book for $0.99, while the 2,500 supporters who funded the project earlier this year via Kickstarter get it for free. "We surprised ourselves," says Johnson, referring to their funding goal of $50,000 (£31,500) being raised in two days and eventually exceeded by nearly 200 per cent. "But there does seem to be a window at the moment where all the pieces are aligned to make this kind of thing possible. The arrival of [reading] apps, the popularity of e-books, the ease of delivery and payment – and the ability to build a community."
The complaints made by Matter in its pitch to investors – that many websites think that we're dumb, prioritise advertising and treat press releases as if they were news – won't suddenly be resolved by Matter's launch, or indeed the changes afoot at Buzzfeed. But the "correction" that Johnson refers to does seem to be gathering pace, while putting to bed one of the most common misconceptions about our online reading habits. "It's been proven to be wrong," says Johnson. "It's an argument that doesn't really need to be made any more."
A mouse that lives up in the cloud. How very useful
We live in a technological world where the phrase "cloud-based solution" has become ubiquitous. The idea of storing files remotely on a secure server thousands of miles away, rather than within a few feet of our desk, is regularly presented as a solution to problems that, in many instances, were never there in the first place. So, you might not buy into the cloud as a concept – but sometimes you're not even offered the choice, and the absurdity of one such case is currently causing a kerfuffle.
Razer, a company known for its gaming peripherals and accessories, has just introduced Synapse 2.0, a application that lets you store the settings for your gaming mice and keyboards in the cloud. But, crucially, the products that use it don't function fully unless they're connected to the internet. If your connection is down, your £70 cutting-edge mouse is transformed into a bog-standard £5 mouse – and users are, understandably, not happy. Type "Razer synapse" into Google, and the search engine automatically suggests "account locks", "won't open", "not working" and "sucks". Ouch.
The idea behind Synapse 2.0 is pretty sound: if you're playing your favourite game on another computer, you can take your mouse with you and all your settings will be intact, allowing you to "dominate the competition". But it also makes for a gadget that's almost pointlessly tethered to the web and imposes unnecessary restrictions on its users. So much for the "freedom" afforded by the cloud.
The TV that can count heads... and charge accordingly
An unintentionally hilarious patent was filed by Microsoft last week featuring televisions that are able to assess how many people are in the room watching. "Viewers may be uniquely identified and the count of the viewers determined," runs the blurb, "with the licensee then charged for each viewer accessing the content." This suggests so many faintly comical scenes that it's hard to know where to start – from someone wandering in the room while you're watching a film and accidentally costing you a fiver, to a wonderful error screen constructed in Photoshop by some waggish type on a messageboard this week, that reads: "SORRY DAVE – TOO MANY FRIENDS."
Microsoft was quick to respond that not all patents applied for or received are incorporated into finished products – but it's a grim reminder of the onerous world of digital rights management. The music business has pretty much abandoned it, having established that, as an anti-piracy measure, it tends to give people more incentive to commit acts of piracy. But this patent – even if it's merely an act of corporate land-grabbing – is an indication that the DRM question is not one that's going away in a hurry.
A real-life Babel fish whispering in your ear
After their iffy TV patent, Microsoft present us with something so magical, so wondrous, that we forgive them almost anything. A video has popped up on YouTube featuring its chief research officer, Rick Rashid, demonstrating a system whereby his English speech is translated on the fly by computer into a synthesised version of his voice speaking Mandarin Chinese. As each sentence is translated automatically for the crowd they go wild, envisaging a time where Douglas Adams' fictional Babel fish earpiece (above) becomes a reality.
The company has used deep neural networks to improve the error rate of existing speech recognition by around 15 per cent – hugely significant. Then, using translation software to convert the text, and speech synthesis to modulate the output, on-the-fly translation is miraculously achieved. It's far from perfect; you wouldn't want to use it to settle border disputes between leaders at international summits. But as an onstage spectacle? It's sci-fi heaven.
Chrome wants to jam – does it know Stairway to Heaven?
Musicians have long dreamt of using the internet to play together live, in real time. But unfortunately data takes time to travel, and any musical synergy you might establish when playing together in a room is brutally savaged by network latency. It simply doesn't work.
A new toy just brought out by Google called Jam With Chrome (jamwithchrome.com) doesn't change things that much. "Now's your chance to be a rock star," says the associated blog post, somewhat optimistically, explaining how you can make music with up to three other friends. It is fleetingly fun, I have to admit; there's a beautiful browser interface (right), with nicely sampled instruments that you can trigger by mouse or keyboard. But the latency still manages to kill any attempt at musical expression, and its most likely effect is to prompt participants to say: "Sod this – shall we hire a rehearsal room instead?"
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